|

Buddhism: a religion for death

by Donald Richie

Japan is so successfully ecumenical, the various religions of Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam happily living side by side, that one is tempted to doubt Japanese belief in any of them.

DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE IN JAPANESE BUDDHISM, edited by Jacqueline I. Stone and Mariko Namba Walter. Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press, 2008, 382 pp., $52 (cloth)

Adding to this perhaps doubtful impression is the fact that religions here have been assigned various nonreligious tasks. Shinto has authority over most marriages and the comings of age of the resultant children, Christianity seems to have been awarded domain over exotic foreign-style marriages, and Buddhism has been given death.

Whether this last is true or not, the popular impression is that Buddhism takes on the responsibilities of both funeral rites and notions about the afterlife. Quoted is a reply to a question as to a family’s Buddhist sectarian affiliation: “I don’t know. No one in our household has died yet.”

There are reasons why Buddhism is thought responsible for the dead and for the means through which it got that way. One is that when Buddhism was introduced in Japan it already possessed a systematic doctrine, an institutional organization and a fully formed ritual repertoire, unequaled by any other religious tradition in Japan — just the thing to handle something as socially important as funerals.

Another reason is Buddhism’s own compelling teachings about the afterlife and the perceived efficacy of its funeral ties as well as its capacity to absorb religious elements from other beliefs. Shinto kami could be recast as Buddhas and bodhisattvas, all of them displaying the reassurance and comfort that death demands.

One yet further reason for Buddhism’s identification with the dying and the dead is that it had already provided itself with a class of religious specialists perceived as capable of managing the dangers and defilements of death, and of mediating between this world the next. The Buddhist priest thus came fully equipped.

These are among the conclusions reached at an annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in the year 2000, an event that became the impetus for the present volume. The nine essays here gathered display a variety of approaches, but taken in conjunction they offer a more thorough picture of their topic than has hitherto been available.

The interested reader will learn about deathbed practices in the Heian Period, about the rituals of dying in medieval Japan, and about what both the dead and their survivors thought about relics, about suicide, about the “Blood Pool Hell,” and about postmortem fetal extraction. There are further essays on how death was managed by Soto Zen in the Tokugawa Period, how mortuary interests segued into pure business, and why posthumous names cost so much.

This last, the expense of being renamed after death, remains highly contentious. These costs “constitute the single largest funerary expense and have become something of a lightning rod for controversy over traditional Buddhist funerals.”

Also of especial interest is Mariko Walter’s scholarly comparison of Buddhist funerals, sect by sect, followed by an enlightening structural analysis of their various elements. I likewise found much to admire in George Tanabe’s final essay on the “orthodox heresy” of Buddhist funeral. Shinran found the idea of a Buddhist funeral heretical, but historical example discovered Sakyamuni’s funeral to be orthodox. Here the writer digs deep into the paradox that turns out to be much more than merely semantic.

“Death and superstition are the camps in which [Japanese] Buddhism lives, hardly able to venture forth to inform more vital concerns.” Dead to the world, “Buddhism thrives in the narrow corridors of the world of the dead.”

What is this suspicious, if lucrative, identification? How can it become widened, socialized, of more real use? These are questions that animate this final essay and inspire the discussion that the collection represents.